Ranking This Season's Football Opponents by Likelihood of Victory

Sorted from most likely victories to least likely.  Right to it:

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#1.  Northern Colorado
September 25, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 3-8 (1-7).  Only 1-A oppenent was Kansas, to whom they lost 49-3.

History vs. MSU: None.

UNC (not that UNC) is this season's 1-AAcrifice; in last season's semi-exhibition, MSU beat Montana State (not that MSU) 49-3.  This game is sandwiched between the Notre Dame and Wisconsin games, and should provide a decent respite and week for recovery.  Losing this game would be calamitous; fortunately, it's not going to happen.  Also, their logo looks like Hockeybear wearing nail polish.

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#2.  Florida Atlantic
September 11, Ford Field

2009 season: 5-7 (5-3).  Lost at Nebraska (49-3) and at South Carolina (38-16).

History vs. MSU: MSU is 1-0.  Lost 17-0 at Spartan Stadium in 2008.

The 2008 game was the mud bowl which Javon Ringer won nearly by himself (282 rushing yards on 43 carries).  Remarkably, this will be Howard Schellenberger's 10th season at FAU, but he's yet to show that he can turn the program into a winner.  While nine starters return on defense for FAU, they return only three starters on offense, and none of them are on the offensive line.  It's difficult to see the Owls scoring enough points to win this game.

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#3.  Western Michigan
September 4, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 5-7 (4-4).  Lost to MSU, 49-14; also lost at Michigan (31-7) and Indiana (23-19).

History vs. MSU: MSU is 7-0.  Surprisingly few games; we didn't play WMU between 1918 and 1980.  3-0 since 1997; game in 2003 was distressingly close (26-21 MSU win).

The WMU game was the first Saturday in November last season, and gave MSU an opportunity to lick its wounds after the Iowa game.  It was also MSU's last good defensive performance of the season, as WMU had only 117 passing yards and 94 rushing yards, and didn't convert a single third down play. Phil Steele has WMU rated as the top team in the MAC West this season -- he particularly likes their defense and receiving corps -- but the Broncos have to replace 4-year starting QB Tim Hiller, a 1,000 yard rusher, and several key players on defense.  This is a team that might have put a scare into MSU later in the season, but it's difficult seeing a QB making his first-ever start (Alex Carder, probably) a win in a Big Ten stadium. 

More, after the jump.

 

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#4.  Illinois
October 16, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 3-9 (2-6).  The biggest underachievers in the conference.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 24-17-2.  State has won 10 of the last 11 games in the series, with the lone loss coming in 2006 -- a miserable loss to a terrible (2-10) Illini team.

Illinois returns all but 18 lettermen from last season's team; linebacker, defensive backs, and running backs look to be positions of strength.  The Illini will be starting a redshirt freshman (Nathan Scheelhasse) -- normally, this would be a red flag, but it's difficult to imagine how Illinois could receive less production from the QB position than it did last season.  More importantly, Arrelious Benn is gone, as are their two best offensive linemen.  Captain Zook is at the helm.  What could possibly go wrong?

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#5.  Minnesota
November 6, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 6-7 (3-5).

History vs. MSU: MSU is 25-17, but we've dropped 6 of the last 8 against the Gophers, including the last 3.  Last season's 42-34 loss in Minneapolis was probably the worst game of the Dantonio regime.

Minnesota is probably worse than Illinois--almost everyone ranks the Gophers as the worst team in the conference--but I can't rank this game higher than the Illini, given the travishamockery in Minneapolis last November.  Adam Weber is back to finish his four-year tenure as Minnesota's starting QB, though he was pushed for his job by MarQueis Gray in spring practice.  The Gophers lose Eric Decker, though he was injured for the final third of last season, and look to be a mess on the defensive line as they lose their four top defensive ends and their top defensive tackle.  Linebacker is no better, as only 2 of the top 6 position players return.  If MSU gets a marginally better defensive effort than last season, this game will be a win.  The revenge factor should be high.

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#6.  Northwestern
October 23, Ryan Field

2009 season: 8-5 (5-3).  Ended the season very strongly, with wins against Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and an amazingly entertaining 38-35 bowl loss to Auburn.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 35-12 against Northwestern.  State is 6-4 in the last 10 meetings, and has won the last two seasons.

To me, the Wildcats are one of the most intriguing teams in the conference.  They return their entire linebacking corps, are intact at running back, and Phil Steele expects them to improve significantly at offensive line.  Conversely, they lose three starters in the secondary, their top two receivers, and quarterback Mike Kafka.  (Dan Persa will be the starter.)  Their strong finish last season is clearly a positive indicator, as is the continuing presence of Pat Fitzgerald on the sidelines.  MSU has had surprisingly easy victories in the last two games against NU; I expect a close game this season but in the end, I think our deep receiving corps is going to be too much for the young Northwestern secondary to handle.

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#7.  Purdue
November 20, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 5-7 (4-4).  Started 1-5, and broke the streak with a stunning win against Ohio State.  Last three victories were against weak Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana teams, however.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 32-26-3.  Purdue has won 6 of the last 10, but MSU has won the last 3.  Purdue totally blew the game against us last season.

Purdue is widely seen as a team on the rise, with Miami transfer Robert Marve under center this season, and most of last season's receiving corps returning.  Additionally, most of the defensive line returns, and all 3 top linebackers are back.  Phil Steele is less sold on the Boilers; he notes that Purdue will have an all-new secondary, and that much depends on whether Ralph Bolden's torn ACL heals in time for the season.  Bolden is currently at 50-60% strength; this is "farther along" than Travis at H&R expected; we'll see how far along he is by the end of November.  As the last game before heading to State College, this game will again be extremely important for MSU.

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#8.  Michigan
October 9, Michigan Stadium

2009 season: lololololol.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 28-52-4, and 3-7 in the last 10.  The last two years have been better.

There's very little I could write here that you don't already know; Michigan is the conference's biggest enigma.  Phil Steele notes that the Wolverines return 15 starters and were -12 in turnover differential last season; those are two of the biggest indicators of an impending turnaround.  However, that was equally true last season and the turnaround obviously didn't materialize.  Michigan is talented at the skill positions, though I remain skeptical as to whether Denard Robinson (or Tate Forcier, I suppose) will be able to harness that talent.  The defense was very bad last season, and the two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) are gone.  Graham, in particular, was a terror against MSU and I'm very pleased to see him move on.  The secondary will probably be atrocious, and Kirk Cousins should have a massive day.  But, this is the Michigan game, in Ann Arbor, and until my dying day I'll never be very comfortable predicting a victory in one of these games.  Additionally, the schedule doesn't set up very well for a victory here; the week before this game, we play Wisconsin in what will certainly be a very physical game, while Michigan has a comparatively easy date at Indiana.

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#9.  Notre Dame
September 18, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 6-6.  6-2 start, 0-4 finish, too embarrassed to play in a bowl game.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 26-32 -1, and 6-4 in the last 10.

The Irish are ranked this high because Charlie Weis is gone and ND hired someone who will probably make them good, sooner or later.  I'm betting on sooner; Weis brought in good recruiting classes, and Kelly will be working with better talent than he ever had at Cincinnati or Central.  However, he's working with a relatively inexperienced group.  ND was projected to be excellent last season in large part because they had so many returning players; those players are now gone, and Kelly must reconstruct the offensive line, deal with the loss of safety Kyle McCarthy, and start the inexperienced Dayne Crist at QB.  However, Crist can throw the ball to Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, hand the ball off to Armando Allen.  The Irish return all three starting linebackers (though they, like MSU, will probably play a lot of 3-4 this season).  Essentially, your opinion of ND's chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly.  I think he's excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.

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#10.  Wisconsin
October 2, Spartan Stadium

2009 season: 10-3 (5-3).  Should have beaten Ohio State.  Bonus points for defending the conference honor in the Champs Sports Bowl against Miami.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 27-18, but Wisconsin has won 6 of the last 10.  The home team has won the last 5 games.

The only reason why I've ranked Wisconsin at #10 is because this game is in East Lansing.  I think the Badgers are going to be very, very good, and given that they're playing Ohio State at home, may be the outside favorites to win the conference.  The offensive line is huge and fantastic, John Clay is perhaps the best running back in the country, Scott Tolzien played very well last season (and against MSU), and Your Spartans simply couldn't cover Garrett Graham -- who is back, of course [edit: no, he's not, thankfully].  The major questions are on defense, where O'Brien Schofield departs, and most everyone else from the mediocre '09 unit returns.  But, ask yourself if our defensive line has any chance at stopping Clay from getting into the linebackers and secondary over and over.  I don't see it happening; the 3-4 might be a good idea here simply to try to limit Clay to 4 yards per carry instead of 6.  In any event, there's not much room for optimism here on the numbers alone, but we have had success against them in East Lansing recently, and the 2008 game proved that anything could happen here.

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#11.  Iowa
October 30, Kinnick Stadium

2009 season: 11-2.  Without the Stanzi injury, they could have been in the national championship game.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 18-21-2; Iowa has won 6 of 10.  The last time we were in Iowa City, we lost in nearly-unbelievable fashion.

Depending on who you believe, Iowa may be in line for a massive letdown, or, uh, won't be.  I tend to be in Hawkeye State's camp, and so is Phil Steele, for what it's worth.  The Hawkeyes will be beastly on defense, led by all-world DE Adrian Clayborn.  The linebackers are young but talented, and Norm Parker seems to always develop linebackers well.  Finally, even with Amari Spievey heading to the Lions, Iowa still has what's probably the conference's best secondary -- and Tyler Jimmer-Jammin' Sash is certainly the Big Ten's best safety.  They are a bit thin, though, as revealed in the most recent Black Heart Gold Podcast.  The major news on offense is that Brandon Wegher seems to have left the building, and the running back options behind him aren't the best: Adam Robinson had more carries than Wegher in '09, but Wegher was the home run threat; Paki O'Meara was a disaster against Northern Iowa and then faded into the background.  Stanzi figures to be his enigmatic-but-clutch self, and he'll have excellent receivers to throw to.  This team is solid from top-to-bottom.  Winning in Iowa City will be a tall order indeed.  See also RossWB's excellent look at this game, newly published today.

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#12.  Penn State
November 27, Beaver Stadium

2009 season: 11-2 (6-2).  Beat LSU in the Capital One Bowl.

History vs. MSU: MSU is 11-14-1, and has only 2 wins in the last 10 games.

PSU shouldn't be MSU's toughest game.  The Lions are young and almost certainly won't be as good as they were the past 2 seasons.  But this game is in State College, where MSU hasn't won since 1965.  Many think, with plenty of justification, that this is Joe Paterno's last season.  In that case, this will be his last home game.  We could start Earl Morrall, Bubba Smith, George Webster, and Andre Rison, and under those circumstances it probably wouldn't make a difference.  I'd be stunned if this ends up being a win.

As Ives would say, please share your own rankings in the comments below.

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